Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Village Homes in Davis Offers Good and Bad Urbanism Lessons

Before getting to the heart of this post, I’ll offer quick reminders of two points from earlier posts.  It’ll lay the groundwork for the rest of the topic.

First, new urbanism doesn’t concern itself solely with mixed-use buildings near a commercial core or a transit stop.  It also considers areas of lower density, up to a quarter-mile or more from the node.  These are neighborhoods from which people can walk “downtown” to shop or to catch a trolley.  These lower densities are often single family homes.  New urbanism examines how these homes can be configured to provide a range of housing options while also providing sufficient density for urbanism to succeed.

Second, urbanism is a form of sustainability, probably the most fundamental form of sustainability.  It provides a setting for people to live productive and fulfilled lives while using fewer resources.  But it’s also important that urbanist structures be durable.  A transit stop surrounded by worn-out buildings occupied by struggling businesses and few residents is an urbanist failure.   Building durability is also a form of sustainability.

These thoughts on new urbanism and sustainability lead into the following topic.

In his book “Pocket Neighborhoods”, Ross Chapin writes about Village Homes in Davis, a single family subdivision west of the university.  Village Homes was designed to break new ground in livability and sustainability.  A system of walking paths independent of the street system allows children, and adults, to wander throughout the development without interacting with cars.  The layout also provides tracts for community gardens.

It’s hard to consider Village Homes an urbanist project because it lacks strong non-vehicular access to transit or shopping.  But if successful, Village Homes can a model for subdivisions in urbanism settings.

So, on a recent Saturday afternoon, I drove through Village Homes.  There is much to like.  It was disconcerting at first to have no sidewalks, but when I saw residents walking on the separate paths, the concept felt right.

The community orchards and vineyards were truly a pleasure to see.  And the community agriculture appears to have been successful, based on the signs reminding the general public that only Village Homes residents may partake of the crop.

There seemed to be more interaction between neighbors than is common in most recent subdivisions.

Also, the streets in Village Homes are named after people and places in “The Lord of the Rings”.  It’s hard not to feel good when traveling Rivendell Lane, Westernesse Road, and Bombadil Lane.

Much about Village Homes seemed very right.

But there are also signs of looming problems.  To a small extent, the problem can be seen in the photo of the vineyard.  The pavement is in poor condition and may be considered to have failed.  Extensive reconstruction seems to be in the near future.

Even worse was the condition of the homes.  The initial construction appears to have been less than stellar.  And the subsequent maintenance has been less than adequate.  Based on a windshield survey, I would guess perhaps a quarter of the homes are in fair condition or worse.

And the community was beginning to show the effects of the declining home quality.  Some carports were overfilled with household junk.  Yard upkeep was uneven.

The problem looked likely to worsen.  As the poorest quality homes begin to affect the perception of the neighborhood, the owners who can afford to make repairs will become unmotivated to do so because property values won’t support the repair costs.  Instead, they’ll move on, leaving the community in the hands of people unable to make repairs.  And the new owners will be less likely to afford the needed road repairs.  It’ll become a death spiral.

My visit was brief and my impressions may have been flawed.  But from my observations, Village Homes looked to be a place that may slide into a steep decline over the next decade.  And that would be a shame.  It was based on a far-sighted and virtuous concept that deserved a higher level of construction.  The concept appears sustainable, but it needed a level of construction to support the sustainability.

And that should be a general lesson for urbanism and sustainability.  Sometimes the most sustainable elements aren’t stormwater reuse or permeable pavement.  Instead, it’s a few extra nails and a higher quality of material assuring that buildings will provide long and durable service.


Chattanooga Font - I recently wrote about the work by graphical designers in Chattanooga to create a font for community branding and promotion.  This article in Smithsonian doesn’t add much to the story, but it’s good to see the level of attention that the Chattanooga effort is receiving.

Petaluma National Little League – As presumably everyone in the North Bay knows, the Petaluma National Little League team finished a strong third in the Little League World Series, playing well and showing an amount of heart that was just as impressive as their on-field performance.  I mention this in an urbanism blog because the party thrown for the young ballplayers last Sunday was a fine example of community spirit.

I found the Little League parade in downtown Petaluma to be more special that the Butter and Eggs Parade because it represented a spontaneously outpouring of enthusiasm instead of a long-planned and carefully scripted event.  It’s that kind of spirit upon which urbanism hopes to build.  Congratulations to both the team and the town.

Scheduling Notes:

Petaluma Urban Chat - The next meeting of the Petaluma Urban Chat will be Tuesday, September 11.  We have something fun planned for the October meeting, but advance planning is required.  If you’ve been thinking about joining our small band, please come in September so you can be included in the October event.  We’ll convene at the Aqus Café at 5:30pm.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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